Sunday, February 25, 2007


Yitro, Mishpatim and Teruma Blogging

I somehow procrastinated too long and never did make any notes for the sermon I volunteered to do yesterday, but I managed to remain vaguely cogent (more-so than I am with this sentence that would be a run-on but for the punctuation of it), and I even managed to work in the material that I would have given as a sermon on Parshas Yitro. A summary:

These last three parshios form a narrative arc that tells us something about how law, punishment and redemption work. Note that the first one is parsha Yitro, not parsha Eseres Divros. Fundamental to any system of laws is the suggestion by Moses' father-in-law (amazing how in-laws always stick their noses in your business ... imagine how it was for Moses, when his in-laws actually were right!) that laws are not documents on paper but require a system of courts to adjudicate them and to keep them as living doctrines by re-interpreting them for the time and place at hand, pace the "Constitution in Exile" crowd. Indeed, while some are obsessed with putting the "10 commandments" in court-houses, etc., Judaism teaches that the universal commandments are the 7 Noachide laws, one of which is to set up a system of courts.

And while a system of courts is necessary to any collection of laws, what is also necessary are the details. The giving of the Decalogue may have been a climactic moment, but real life begins with the denouement; the Decalogue is neither the beginning (which is the establishment of a legal system per Yitro's advice) nor is it the end of law. After the Decalogue we get the various laws of Mishpatim that tell us how to actually implement the principles of the Decalogue.

Of course, we all end up slipping and backsliding. But does that mean we cannot be redeemed by our own actions? A legal system is only just if it can be followed and moreover if there are mechanisms for one to atone for lapses in following it. Terumah, a word which is usually translated as "gift" (appropriate to the upcoming holiday of Purim, during which exchanging gifts is a custom) but relates in its actual connotation of setting something aside to be a gift to both the concept of holiness and of an alliyah, describes the building of the mishkan (tabernacle complex) including the mizbeach (altar) on which sacrifices are offered. The word mizbeach happens to be an acrostic for the Hebrew words for forgiveness, merit, blessing and life. Through the mishkan and later the Mikdash (Temple), one can achieve forgiveness.

But the holiday of Purim reminds us that we Jews have for thousands of years lived as Jews without a Mikdash. So how do we atone? The Christian answer would be that atonement comes through the blood sacrifice of Christ Jesus. As Kierkegaard put it, we achieve salvation by making a "leap of faith" into accepting the bizarre tales of the Christian Bible. As Jeff Goldstein (of all people for me to be citing) pointed out, accepting the Jewish "vital lie" that we all experienced the Exodus from Egypt, that we all were at Mount Sinai for the Revelation is our leap of faith. We Jews can atone through repentance, prayer and acts of righteousness because those acts place us spiritually in a position where we are in the Temple, sharing meals with our fellows and thus in sharing meals, which we still do, being under the grace of the Shekhina (c.f. Pirke Avos).

Our salvation comes, though, not from the sacrifices per se, anyway, but rather from the gifts we give to others, whether they be gifts to friends at Purim, donations to charity of the donations toward the construction of a mishkan that enables our atonement. We achieve atonement, merit, blessings and life through setting aside gifts, in which we give of ourselves and hence to God. And this is in exchange for the gift of the Mitzvos which guide us to remain on a moral path to holiness. Does accepting this require a leap of faith? Maybe, but maybe such faith itself is a gift. P.S.: we sang the hymn Eyn Keloheinu to the melody of Simple Gifts. The melody and words fit together perfectly and the sentiment of Simple Gifts is reflected perfectly in the coda to Eyn Keloheinu.

A lot to consider, Alberich. There isn't any other place to read this kind of thing that I've come across. Thank you for the good work.
You're welcome. :)
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